“What you see and what you hear depends a great deal on where you are standing. It also depends on what sort of person you are.” – C. S. Lewis
Cincinnati native, Jessica Evans and I share a few things in common that stretch beyond a love of words. Yes, we both have MFAs in writing from Spalding University, and we both write poetry, as well as fiction. Yet early on, it seems, Jessica began to examine the ways in which “life is impacted by socioeconomic status.” She was standing at a particular place of experience, and she chose to look, to notice, to see things others may have overlooked . . . to consider and try to perceive life for those standing in a different place of experience.
This aspect of her character, this reflection of the sort of person she is, and as a result the sort of writer she is, resonated with me as I am compelled to explore other views, to write about those who are different, misfits, those who live on the periphery, those who have lived lives I can only try to imagine, yet with whom I have much in common. I love exploring what life might be like for these people. Another deep connection I have with Jessica.
That is why I asked her to be a guest blogger on Write Side Up. The post, which is in interview form, appears below. I hope you’ll spend a little time with Jessica here and then explore her website and her work. Her latest book, the novel Hippie Mafia, is set in her hometown of Cincinnati and “examines humanity through an unconventional lens.”
In my humble opinion, those lenses often offer the clearest vision.
Lafayette Wattles: What is the deep-down driving force behind your choice to write/be a writer?
Jessica Evans: Every reader wants to find a piece of home in fiction, even if it’s the faintest glimmer. I’ve moved around more times than I care to recall, and as such, it’s hard for me to specifically articulate what home means. It has been my experience that home is a relative state of mind, and my work attempts to personify the need that we all have to find a home. It is my sincere hope that my words offer readers a sense of place, a home between pages. I surely have benefited from reading writers who offered me that, and I hope to return the favor in kind.
As a reader, when I find a character who resonates, I feel validation for my choices in this life. I feel as if the character helps me proclaim the integrity of my decisions. With that in mind, I try to write the sorts of stories that read like long forgotten favorite songs – the ones that make us remember, make us forget, make us love and live and bleed.
My writing is an expression of seeking home, no matter how mundane. Each of my characters embodies something that is dear to me, even if “dear to me” means that it was absolutely terrible. With my work, I try to voice the smallest nuances of life, the things that make us human.
Lafayette: Young Adult author, Jacqueline Woodson says that writers tend to focus on the time in our lives we’re still working through. Is there an element of truth to Woodson’s claim as it relates to you/your work? If so, how?
Jessica: I’ve never heard this encapsulated so succinctly, but I’d have to agree. Every writer (and every human for that matter) is working through bits and pieces of life that might not have ended up the way we envisioned. My earlier work definitely resonated with periods in my life that didn’t make sense, and in translating those events to the page, I attempted to make myself understand them in a way I couldn’t while experiencing the events. I think that a seasoned writer is one who is able to take any period of life and translate it into something universal, something that can be understood, compressed, and then expounded upon in such a way that we don’t realize we’re on the journey until it ends.
Lafayette: You seem to write in a range of genres. Do you have a favorite genre or form (and, if so, why)?
Jessica: Ask me tomorrow and I’ll give you a different answer. Poetry is my first and foremost love, but fiction offers me the ability to work with longer lines and more complex ideas. Most days, I’ll tell you that flash is my favorite, the mise en scene that can capture life in five hundred words or less. I liken my appreciation for flash to my foundations in poetry, but really, writing – the expressive idea that writing out a truth is something noble and worthwhile – is really all it’s about, no matter the form.
Lafayette: If there was one theme you’ve never explored in your writing that you’d like to, what might it be and why?
Jessica: If I ever get over writing about human interaction on base levels, I’d like to explore how career choices alter sense of self and how careers that we choose determine who we eventually become. For example, one of my closest friends is in pursuit of her PhD in toxicology. I often wonder if her identity has become so wrapped into her research that it’s difficult to differentiate the two. The same goes for anyone else in a professional capacity – my jet-setting corporate sister, for example, who is in a different time zone almost every other day – I have to explore the idea that her core being has been altered, shaped, and changed in some way by the life she leads. Same goes for soldiers, mechanics, professional thugs and thieves, those who live off the dole of the system. Surely there has to be something that links their lives to the way they view the world.
Lafayette: How long have you been interested in writing? And what sort of background do you have (formal training, apprenticeship, workshops, self-taught, etc)?
Jessica: I wrote my first book when I was in kindergarten. Albeit, it was a story about cats, but it represents the notion that I’ve always been a writer. I don’t recall a time in my life when I wasn’t writing something, even if it was just angst-ridden teenage poetry. Words are my life. Ask anyone who knows me what I love and they’ll probably list (in no particular order) coffee, books, words, and experiences. In addition to earning an MFA from Spalding, I have attended numerous workshops and have been the grateful recipient of various apprenticeships. At the last high school I attended before dropping out for the third time, I was the co-founder and co-editor in chief of our school literary magazine.
Lafayette: Although I enjoy exploring a writer’s overall intention for being a writer—that deep down spark mentioned above—I know that each project often has it’s own intention. What was the intention behind Hippie Mafia? And do you think or feel like you’ve achieved what you set out to do?
Jessica: The intention of Hippie Mafia was to tell a story of a group of marginalized members of society, those on the fringe who might not fit into one specific category.
It’s easy to compartmentalize humans as being one way or another. Hippie Mafia attempts to restructure that thought. With that in mind, all of my writing attempts to rewire our circuits. I take from the experiences of my husband, who, as a field artillery officer has served in combat. He is currently in command of basic training soldiers and the sheer complexity of what he does – taking ordinary civilians and making them into soldiers – is a dynamic process from which I draw. He has the ability to find ways on the fly to solve complex problems. I’m certain that the way I view anyone who is close to me is different than the way they view themselves. But that’s the point … if I can change even one reader’s idea of who or what a person might or might not be, then I have succeeded as a writer. I marvel at the fact that I have this amazing chance to offer the world an opportunity to view change, one sentence at a time.
Lafayette: What is your process (i.e. do you start with a character, a theme, a feeling . . . or does it vary)?
Jessica: This completely varies depending on the project. Long form poetry generally starts with a theme in mind. Short fiction typically is the result of an inciting action. Sometimes, I’m driving across the country and I have the perfect idea for a novel. Other times, I write and write little snippets without any clear understanding of what the project will be as a whole and then it all comes together. I think for most writers, it’s different. Lately, I’ve been loving the idea of “finishing” a project every time I close my document. It helps me feel like I’m accomplishing something, and the end result seems to be working for me.
Lafayette: What is it about the process that you like most? Least?
Jessica: I love revision. It’s the most painful part of writing, but it’s the most lucrative. I liken it to sprint training to decrease mile times with long distance running, or deload weeks with weightlifting. It’s a blow to the ego, but it’s so necessary.
I least like when my characters have become so complex that I have to write out lists and outlines. I never want my stories to be formulaic and writing out specifics about my story lines feels like I’m detaching from the nuance of creating fiction. In the rare instances in which this has occurred, I think about my brother, who is an engineer. He’s the type to start with an idea and then plan it out clearly and with purpose. Reminding myself that other people go through the same process helps me feel less like I’m abandoning my craft.
Lafayette: What is one thing about writing you think people who aren’t writers/artists might not understand?
Jessica: There’s so much fodder out there that seems to indicate writers are reclusive and introverted and like to spend all of their time alone. While I’m not refuting that, as I love to be with my words alone, so much of writing involves paying attention to people and surroundings. There’s never a time when I’m not actively watching mannerisms, listening to diction and speech, or observing interactions. I think it’s easy to imagine a mad writer sitting in her apartment loft tapping away at a screen. That’s definitely true and most of my writer friends would likely agree that we have periods of time when nothing but words matter.
That said, a ton of the core of what makes writing writing comes from observation. In social settings, I’m absorbing so much information about the way a person stands, sips her drink, eats his chicken wing, watches the game, kisses her wife, that it’s not that I’m (we’re) introverted as much as we’re hyper aware of everything. All the time.
Lafayette: If you could work on any project (writing a specific book, developing a personal idea, doing some time-travel and working on an historical piece with a writer/artist you admire or a contemporary collaboration) what might it be and why?
Jessica: I’ve had this fascination with motorcycle clubs for a long time now, and I’d love to find a way to write about them, presenting them in a light that goes beyond what we all anticipate to be their lives, a way to humanize their experiences. I think that motorcycle clubs, just like military life, or sorority life, or even staying close with the first friends we make, really speak to the idea of what makes us human. Whenever I see a rider, I want to wave him/her down and ask a billion questions, but I’m always nervous that s/he is going to think I’m absolutely weird.
Lafayette: How does your writing reflect your personality?
Jessica: I don’t know that it does, and frankly, I’m not sure that it should. The entire idea of art – visual, written or otherwise – is for the creator to embody someone or something else. Of course, there are nuances to my craft that make it specifically my own; the subject matters that interest me, the ways in which I write, or my love of punctuation all reflect my personality into my work.
But the whole idea, the entire goal, is for my reader to read my words and walk away thinking about it, imagining the scenes as if I’ve written his/her life. It’s just the same as with music. Musicians certainly have a definitive sound, but it doesn’t mean that their personalities are entrenched in their work. Rather, it means that they’ve found a way to elevate their craft to make it universal. That’s my goal with my work – that it is (or becomes) something so approachable that anyone can read it, gain insight, and return to it in the future.
Lafayette: Any exciting projects coming up for which we should keep on the lookout?
Jessica: I’ve been working on a collection for about a year that really takes a close look at the trite and cliché characters that we’ve all met in our lives and reframes them to be human. I’m hoping it will be complete by autumn, and then I’ll begin the long process of finding a home for my words.
Explore the world of Jessica Evans by visiting her website, and follow her on Twitter and Instagram. And give yourself permission to stop where you are, to look and to reflect, to see the world around you. Doing so is often the best way to also see yourself.